Why Trauma Bonding Keeps People Stuck In Abusive Relationships

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couple trauma bonding

Emotional abuse is often mistaken for love by those who are trapped in a cycle of abuse in their relationship. Trauma is surprisingly easy to overlook when the abuse masquerades as someone caring for you.

What is trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding definition: "a strong emotional attachment between an abused person and his or her abuser, formed as a result of the cycle of violence."

Trauma bonding is a term created by Patrick Carnes, a somewhat controversial figure in the field of addiction counseling, as a way to explain the emotional bond that develops between abuser and victim within the context of emotionally and physically abusive relationships (often, but not always, one involving a narcissist).

Trauma bonding is something many people trapped in abusive relationships don't realize they're experiencing. As mental and psychological abuse beats you down, you mistakenly come to associate feelings of trauma with love.

Signs of trauma bonding in abusive relationships

  • Accepting blame for the abuse: "He didn’t mean to get angry. It was my fault."
  • Feeling you deserve the abuse: "He puts up with me and still loves me."
  • Justifying the abuse: "He had a terrible childhood. I feel sorry for him."
  • Believing you can change your abuser: "I can help him to change with love and support."
  • Excusing the abuse: "He deserves a fair go. He doesn’t mean to hurt me."

Notice how the abuser’s behavior is always justified and the victim blames themselves as if the abuse is their own fault. This is how victims of trauma bonding minimize and deny the abuse they're enduring in order to uphold the positive image of the abuser, while distorting the reality and being misguided by fantasy love they desperately want to be believe is real love.

RELATED: Narcissistic Abuse Is Easily Mistaken For Love (But Here’s How To Tell The Difference)

When you so desperately long to be loved, you can easily become drawn to an abusive relationship and misread the signs as love instead of abuse. So, how do you know if you are truly in love vs. caught in a blinding fantasy due to trauma bonding?

Real love vs. trauma bonding

Have you ever fallen in love hard and fast, only for it to come crashing down in the grim reality of abusive behavior? Did you then feel surprised that it was so hard to break away from such a toxic relationship?

Real love doesn’t usually hit so hard, so fast. Real love is steady and grows slowly as you get to know someone on deeper and deeper levels.

In contrast, becoming attached to someone through a trauma bond can feel magnetic and captivating, but it is not real love, it's attachment formed through trying to feel in unhealed emotional wounds.

Vulnerability to trauma bonding often stems from insecure attachments created during repeated abusive or traumatic childhood experiences with a caregiver. This relationship pattern becomes internalized as a learned pattern of behavior that carries into your relationships as an adult.

If you experienced abuse from a primary caregiver when you were a child, you likely learned to associate love with abuse. This became the template for how you learned to relate to others and form relationships.

You expect that in order to feel loved, you must also be abused — that's just how it works.

For example, if you were abused for being noncompliant as a child, you were likely left feeling abandoned and unworthy. In order to attach to your abuser, you learned to meet their needs and make them happy so you could receive love and approval. Over time, this became your basic equation for love.

If you were abused as child, you protected your relationship with your abusive parent by preserving your vision of them as a "good" parent, pushing down your feelings of anger or hurt in order to feel loved, safe, and attached. You protected yourself by burying these feelings, and convincing yourself that there must be something wrong with you for you to be so upsetting to your parent. You came to believe that it was all your fault — you are bad, you are naughty and you must make it up to them if you want to be "good enough" to deserve their love.

This coping mechanism became the template for how you see yourself in relationships as an adult.

You see yourself as bad and deserving of punishment, so you must be good in order to get the love you want. In essence, you are still longing for your abusive father or mother to give you the lost love you wanted, repeating the self-destructive pattern with abusive partners as you desperately fight to get them to love you.

When you feel as though you're not good enough, your desire for love can be the perfect bait for an abusive narcissist to hook onto. When you're meeting all their needs, you feel loved and good enough, allowing you both to see their abuse as justified.

As you justify or minimize the abuse and blame yourself for it, you remain in denial about the fact that you are being abused — just as you did as a child.

Acknowledging abuse creates a fear of abandonment, awakening your original pain. This pushes you to further defend and protect yourself by digging deeper into denial and self-blame.

Facing reality and letting go of the fantasy that you are being truly loved stirs your fear of abandonment, along with your associated feelings of not being good enough. You reenact the same attachment pattern you first learned with your abusive parent and cannot let go of the abuser. Instead, you believe you must figure out how to be good enough to get them back.

Victims of abuse will go back to their abusers over and over, justifying it this way every time as the trauma wounds bind them tighter together.

RELATED: Why Trauma Bonding Stops You From Leaving Your Abusive Partner

How to prevent yourself from trauma bonding with someone who is emotionally abusive:

1. Always take your time to get to know someone and learn about their past.

2. Be careful not to jump straight into a committed relationship because things feel good and exciting.

3. Look out for the red flags and signs of abusive behaviour, such as feeling pressured, controlled, or belittled.

4. Be sure your boundaries are respected. If they aren't, don't take things any further.

5. Make sure what you hear is really what you get and that no hidden truths start popping up with excuses.

6. Watch out for someone who is overly charming or who showers you with excessive attention early on.

7. Be wary of someone who says that all of their ex=partners are "crazy," feels nothing in their past was their fault, or who sees themselves as a passive victim.

8. Remember that if someone seems too good to be true, there's a good chance they're not being entirely authentic with you.

Don't confuse trauma bonding with real love; it will blind you.

True love is not abusive. You shouldn't need to jump through hoops with someone in order for a relationship to fit into your fantasy version of what being loved should look like. Real love is not conditional upon pleasing someone. Real love means feeling loved while expressing yourself authentically, dealing with the ups and downs of life, and seeing each other for who you each really are.

Obtaining self-love means letting go of any remaining ties to an abusive parent so you can free yourself from the dysfunctional attachment pattern of seeking love and approval in order to feel good enough.

Truly loving yourself means engaging in self-care and protecting yourself from abuse so you can be yourself and feel loved for the real person you are.

Photo credit: The Hotline

For any victims and survivors who need support, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has volunteers available to help 24/7/365.

Call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 for TTY, or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.

RELATED: A Step-By-Step Plan For Fleeing Domestic Violence During Coronavirus

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Nancy Carbone is a relationship therapist who deals with trauma bonding in abusive relationships and attachment trauma. For more information on how she can help you, visit her website and reach out to her today.